Dos Rios Ranch. Photo courtesy of River Partners.

COMMENTARY: Investing now to keep Valley safe from megafloods

By Senator Alvarado-Gil, Assemblyman Heath Flora, and Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria

We all know it. You shouldn’t wait to close the barn door until after the horse has bolted.  That’s an important lesson for Central Valley communities today. California didn’t experience floods this past winter like we did in 2023. But given that the legislature is writing a bond now, this is the time to speak up to keep our communities safe from catastrophic flooding in the future.

A flooded street in Merced County on Jan. 11, 2023. Photo: Andrew Innerarity / DWR

A year and a half ago, the town of Planada was hit by a devastating flood. When a debris-clogged Miles Creek overflowed, the resulting flood hit like a gut-punch. UC Merced researchers found that 83 percent of all households suffered, and many lost everything.

“These were more than houses,” one anguished resident told the media, “they were symbols of a lifetime of hard work.”

Climate models predict future floods could be up to five times larger than the historic 1997 flood that drowned nearly 300 square miles of the state. And the San Joaquin Valley will be Ground Zero for the worst of it. The worst-case scenario predicts an almost incomprehensible $1 trillion in damages across the state – in what could be one of the biggest natural disasters ever. Most of that damage could happen in the Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley faces a double whammy. First, warmer storms will turn our current snowpack into rain, which will run off the Sierra in larger floods. Second, over the past few decades, far more has been spent to protect the Sacramento Valley from flooding – compared to the San Joaquin. So, we face larger floods, and are behind in preparing for them.

We know how to protect our communities from these floods. More and higher levees alone will not get the job done. The California State Plan of Flood Control calls for a major investment in restoring floodplains – allowing flood flows to spread out, slow down and sink in to our groundwater basins.

To see how this works, it’s worth hearing about a Valley town that did not flood a year ago.  That winter, rivers overflowed barriers and refilled 175 square miles of the ancient Tulare Lake. Meanwhile, the frequently flooded farming town of Grayson, sitting on the banks of the San Joaquin River west of Modesto, stayed dry.

Dos Rios Ranch. Photo courtesy of River Partners.

Why? In part, it is because floodwaters coming down the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers had somewhere else to go. Instead of running through Grayson, they were allowed to flow onto restored and reconnected floodplains in and around the Dos Rios Ranch Preserve.

Floodplain restoration is a nature-based, common-sense solution. In fact, there’s remarkable agreement among Valley interests that floodplain restoration is essential to keep our communities safe. And this approach does more than just prevent floods.

Floodplains offer the potential to provide recreational opportunities for park-starved Valley communities. In fact, Dos Rios will open this month as California’s newest state park in years. Floodplain restoration allows floodwaters to recharge our overstressed groundwater supplies. And it also helps to restore fish and wildlife habitat, and even results in noteworthy natural carbon capture to fight climate change.

We are part of a growing alliance of state legislators fighting to ensure that any natural resources or climate bond this year includes adequate funds for San Joaquin Valley floodplain restoration.

Dozens of near-term San Joaquin Valley projects benefiting rural and urban communities alike—towns like Firebaugh and Manteca, and cities like Stockton—can get started if we can provide essential start-up funding.

The prospect of increasingly dangerous floods is, frankly, scary. But fortunately, we know that floodplain restoration can protect us, while improving our water supplies, quality of life and natural resources. Calling this a win-win sells this approach short by several additional “wins.”

That’s why it’s so important that this proven flood protection approach is included in a legislative bond this year.

 Senator Alvarado-Gil represents the 4th Senate District including the counties of Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Mono, Nevada, Placer, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne. Assemblyman Heath Flora represents California’s 9th Assembly District, covering large portions of south Sacramento County, San Joaquin County and north Stanislaus County. Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria represents the 27th Assembly District which includes communities in Fresno, Madera, and Merced counties.

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